July 17, 2015
Our weeklong mountain bike ride from Telluride, Colorado to Moab, Utah was a fulfilling adventure, especially with so many good friends and a great cause to get behind. I’m excited to report that Noah Blue Elk Hotchkiss, age 16, finished all 215 miles under the power of his arms and with the support of an awesome team. Five years ago, Noah was in a car accident that paralyzed him from the waist down, but he has converted this tragedy into personal growth. Noah is a leader in his hometown of Durango and the Native Americans with disabilities community. He’s a highly ranked monoskier and wheelchair basketball competitor, and last summer rowed his own raft down the San Juan River. He also recently received a prestigious $10,000 grant to fund a Dreamstarter project and will use the funds to lead basketball camps with Durango’s Adaptive Sports Association.
With his athletic background, it’s no surprise that Noah wanted to take on seven days of off-road mountain passes, ascending above 11,000 feet at the highest point with a total of 20,000 feet in climbed elevation. Regardless of his ambition, an illness this spring knocked Noah down and kept him from training properly. As if cranking with his arms for a week wasn’t enough, he was going to have to do it “off the couch”! I supported Noah on my mountain tandem with my friend, Bob Kaufman as the pilot. Joining us were Bob’s wife - Karen, my old adventure racing partner - Rob Harsh, my 1995 Denali partner - Sam Bridgham, Noah's dad - Jason, and Uncle Jody.
We started in the San Juan Mountains above Telluride with a Ute prayer from Noah’s dad honoring their ancestors who had hunted elk and deer in those very mountains. He also spoke freely about Noah’s accident. “Noah has faced plenty of adversity. At first it was devastating to our family, but the irony is that Noah’s challenge has made him strong and has helped the lives of others. I believe his wheelchair protects him.”
As I listened, I envisioned Noah’s wheelchair as an amulet giving him power and protection, perhaps blessed in some way by his ancestors who walked and struggled in those same mountains beneath our feet! Then Noah, whose Ute name is Singing Bear, sang a beautiful enchanting song. In Ute tradition, you begin a journey by singing half of a song praising the natural world. Since the mountains, wind, trees, and animals want to hear the rest of the song, they protect the traveler throughout the journey. On the last day, you finish the song, and Mother Earth is satisfied.
The first day started with a huge climb up a steep trail in the hot sun. Noah got his money’s-worth – 8 miles in 6 hours – just over one mile per hour. Then our journey took us through the Uncompahgre Wilderness. Thanks to all the rain this spring, we were surrounded by am immense blanket of vibrant-colored wild flowers, from blue lupines, columbines and indian paintbrush. Bob said it looked like a 4th of July fireworks show. Although I couldn’t see them, we stopped for photos a dozen times so my wife could view them later. I also felt the petals and was awed by the variety of shapes and sizes, some the size of a hand, and others tiny and delicate.
Our trip continued and Day 3 began with a plateau traverse in the Uncompahgre Range, followed by a deep descent into rolling plains and vast mesas. As we rode on into Day 4, the La Sal Mountains sprung up in the distance, reminding us of the climbing still to come. The scenery on this section was surreal, with lush mountains of evergreens and aspen groves meeting stark, but stunning desert rock formations.
We encountered some rough roads here, including mud and stream crossings followed by grinding ascents of three major passes. Here our towing system really came in handy. The team took turns with two riders out in front of Noah connected by bungee cords and carabiners. With all of us pedaling hard, we were able to speed up the team and beat the afternoon storms.
Noah was a little reluctant at first to connect up, preferring to be totally independent. That was admirable, but in talking to him later at camp, I tried to lend a little perspective from my past experiences. “As someone also with a disability, I struggle with how much I can do independently and how much I need to rely on others.” I told him my story of climbing Everest and that I’d needed help to get through the Khumbu Icefall, a blind person’s worst nightmare. “If I hadn’t accepted help from my team, I would have never summited, and we would have never been able to make history. So making an impact isn’t always about being totally independent. It’s also about being connected to others and together doing something extraordinary.” I told Noah how much I love being part of a team, because it’s about both giving help and receiving help, and feeling like you’re a part of something bigger.
After that, I noticed a slight shift in Noah. Not only did he readily accept help from the team on the hills, but at camp, as I tried to find the trail to the outhouse, it was Noah who’d always call out directions.
The last segment of our journey involved a massive descent into the town of Gateway, Colorado, with steep cliffs to keep things spicy, and then out of Gateway, a massive 3,500-foot ascent up and over another pass. On the morning of the big climb, Noah, Jason, Sam and Jody left at 4:30 AM to beat the heat and to give Noah more time. The trail here was so steep, the team couldn’t even tow. Instead, some pushed their bikes while others helped push Noah from behind. For the next two days, we climbed into the La Sal Mountains, an isolated range separating Colorado from Utah. We pedaled over several tough passes as we edged closer to Moab. On our last day, we stopped at an overlook spilling into the desert of Moab far below and Jason led a closing ceremony.
Noah finished his song, and as the birds chirped, the cicadas buzzed, and the wind blew through the Spruce and Pinyon pines, it did seem as though Mother Earth was satisfied by Noah’s song. I also thought she might be pleased by what Noah had accomplished with the help of individuals who, over the last seven days, had become a team. After Noah and his father sang, we went around the circle and each spoke. I ended by saying that I knew this would be just the first of many fulfilling adventures ahead for Noah, and I hoped to live a long time to witness all the great things he’d accomplish in the world. After a few more passes, we reached the Kokopelli Trail, and descended into the heat of the desert, with incredible sandstone formations all around us. Noah used his paraskiing experience to pick perfect lines down the steep winding trail as we dropped through a deep canyon. He was going so fast, we could barely keep up on the tandem. Now in the desert, the heat baked to well over 100 degrees nearly 8000 feet below where we’d started high in the mountains.
At the end of the trail, Noah’s grandmother, who’d been linking up with us in an RV, presented me with a beautiful Dream Catcher that she weaved from grasses and flowers along the way. It’s sitting on my kitchen counter, and I’ll think of it often as I remember our journey together and contemplate all the dreams that will take shape and become reality over Noah’s life.
Thanks to LifeProof and Skratch Labs for keeping our phones safe and our bodies fueled!
Photo Credits: Bob Kaufman, Rob Harsh, Jody Hotchkiss, Jason Hotchkiss